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The psychology of buying green

Written By: - Date published: 12:30 pm, June 13th, 2009 - 10 comments
Categories: articles, Environment - Tags:

I know political animals are watching Mt Albert today, but something to read in the meantime on the psychology of buying ‘green’. We hear it in a myriad of places and phrases, from sustainability to the need to buy what’s best for the environment. But how much is that really a motivator, and how much is it our desire to be part of the conspicious environmentalism movement? I’ve discovered a new phrase, “competitive altruism”, which I came across in this article from the Times:

Many people on both the right and the left like to portray environmentalism as sacrifice — denying oneself some kind of pleasure (a heated pool, extra space in an SUV, the convenience of dry cleaning) in order to help save the planet…

Sure, buying a green product like one of those long-life compact fluorescent bulbs means giving up the understated softness of a regular incandescent. But you also gain something precious when you buy a compact fluorescent: status. When your friends see the bulb screwed into the socket of your lamp, many of them will think you’re a better, more socially conscious person (which you may well be)…

If green products are too cheap, they might undermine the buyer’s ability to signal her status — a desire built into our evolutionary psychology. Griskevicius and his colleagues recommend that companies find a way to publicize the fact that celebrities buy green products. They might also consider keeping those products at a higher price, since penniless people can’t afford to indulge in status-seeking and others will pay a premium for it. We may all be selfish and petty, but there’s no reason the planet can’t benefit from those shortcomings.

I hate to be so cynical but I do think there’s a grain of truth about the human condition here. While some of us may be motivated by doing what’s best for the planet, the ‘drivers’ behind our actions for many of us are just a little more compromised.

10 comments on “The psychology of buying green ”

  1. Camryn 1

    An example of green ‘status seeking’ is the success of the Prius (I write from San Francisco). Honda and others have had hybrids of equal effectiveness, quality and features as the Prius but they have not sold nearly so well. Many even have a lower price but still don’t sell. Two things have made the Prius so successful – (1) its first-mover advantage that made it almost a synonym for hybrid, and especially (2) it’s rather distinctive shape. Other manufacturers have been making hybrid versions of their standard vehicles, so it is hard to tell from the shape that they are hybrids – usually only the lack of engine noise and a small badge are the only giveaways. Both of these factors enhance the ability of Prius owners to show off their green credentials, making it a more attractive purchase for those wishing to do so.

    • Rich 1.1

      Also, lots of conventional cars have better fuel economy than the Prius, though thety might be smaller and have less performance.

  2. thomas forrow 2

    Surely the point is to buy less, “stuff” and if you have to, make sure it is sustain ably produced.and environmentally friendly…. seems the point has been lost on some

  3. This is a bit aside of the main point, but it’s annoying seeing people say CFLs don’t provide the same “understated softness” of incandescent bulbs.

    The ‘warm white’ CFLs I’ve been using in my house for the past decade provide all the “understated softness” I could ask for.

    I’d be within my rights to provisionally conclude the rest of the article suffered from other misapprehensions not as obvious to me.

  4. Rex Widerstrom 5

    I too discovered the phrase recently, courtesy of an article in The Australian which also used the Times item as inspiration.

    It’s a very succinct term for the phenomenon but I’m not sure “competitive” is quite the right term. “Ego-driven” might have been better. As Camryn notes above, people buy Priuses not in spite of the fact they look like someone has put cheap cladding on a shopping trolley but because of it.

    If they were competitive they’d drive a Tesla 😀

    • doc whose asking 5.1

      Oh Rex, what shall we do with you and your wit — cladded shopping trolleys.. indeed!

      Re the tesla, did you know there’s one better.. 400 hp.. can’t say about brakes, but wouldn’t that get you there..

      BTW: in the cheerup line – not to mention lucrative rewards if you know the wherabouts of one, Teo Hui Kiat, and impart the know how to rewarding authorities cited in this story – there is everything you wanted to know about dosh and its dollops.. action sequenced on the Swiss/Italian border and now here just for you via the internet. Bcos, you may have guessed already, the msm are struck dumb by such things..

    • doc whose asking 5.2

      Uno went missing.. so due.. witty Rex.. cladded shopping trolleys indeed!

      BTW there’s a 400hp tesla-type out there now.. no mention of brakes.. but for the competitive set on getting there what a broken limb or two..

      I also added something of a bond-buster from the cryptogon blog about what the msm are not mentioning.. but the exact link disappeared with my earlier comment.. if you’ve the time could be worth a look.. if you know the whereabouts of teo hui kiat..

  5. r0b 6

    I think it’s self-evidently true that some people go greenish because it’s fashionable. And yes that’s a sad comment on the human condition and so on, but in the end it doesn’t matter why people go green as long as they do.

    This unfolding trend is a real opportunity for the green movement to shed its smelly hippy heritage (sorry comrades!) and become something much more broad based and powerful. (I’ll steal an unfair but thought provoking quote from a good lefty novel – “The appropriation of radical thinking by lazy, self-obsessed hippies is a public relations disaster that could cost the earth”). Again, it doesn’t matter if people follow for the wrong reasons, as long as they follow!

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